No time to wait for better times

THERE are some problems nations cannot put off until the economic situation improves and the public’s interest is aroused. For British Ambassador Michael Roberts climate change falls into this category of “take action now” problems since it brings challenges, in terms of droughts, floods and hunger which could cause international conflicts. The ambassador also believes that becoming more environmentally conscious is not just a matter of investing money and struggling, but investing and succeeding. The Slovak Spectator also spoke to Ambassador Roberts about the reasons for the eminence of British universities and the competitive challenges faced by any university that wants to become world class.

Britain's ambassador to Slovakia, Michael Roberts.Britain's ambassador to Slovakia, Michael Roberts. (Source: Jana Liptáková)

THERE are some problems nations cannot put off until the economic situation improves and the public’s interest is aroused. For British Ambassador Michael Roberts climate change falls into this category of “take action now” problems since it brings challenges, in terms of droughts, floods and hunger which could cause international conflicts. The ambassador also believes that becoming more environmentally conscious is not just a matter of investing money and struggling, but investing and succeeding. The Slovak Spectator also spoke to Ambassador Roberts about the reasons for the eminence of British universities and the competitive challenges faced by any university that wants to become world class.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The UK ratified the EU reform treaty, as did Slovakia, earlier this year. In Slovakia, there wasn’t much public debate about either the treaty or its implications. Was there enough public debate in Britain? Is the British public interested in EU affairs?

Michael Roberts (MR): There was huge interest in Britain in the reform treaty, sometimes called the Lisbon Treaty. We ratified it in June after weeks of detailed, quite technical as well as political discussion in our parliament. In fact, ever since we first applied to join the EU in the 1960s, there has been a fierce and often polarised debate about our membership of the Common Market (as it was known then, the EU as it is known now).

In my country, the EU arouses strong feelings. And those who are sceptical about it, about what it does, as well as about our being a member, are vocal and numerous. The thing we all in Britain tend to agree on is the rightness of the policy of enlargement – by which Slovakia and nine other countries became members in 2004, and which has now set Croatia and Turkey on the path towards membership once they meet the criteria. In Britain, political parties, the media and public opinion are all behind this policy. I like to think that the noisy debate we have in Britain about the EU is a healthy thing because it shows to our partners in Brussels that we have thought hard and rigorously about the issues under consideration. Often it is the opponents of the EU and opponents of particular policies who have been the most successful in stirring that thought process.

TSS: What are the most intensely discussed EU issues in Great Britain? What are, in your opinion, the most important issues that Slovakia should pursue within the European Union? Is there a way for small nations like Slovakia to influence fundamental international issues?

MR: Curiously, though we talk about them a lot, it is not the institutional issues that really get people fired up. Most people are interested in how the EU can help them with rising food or fuel prices, how it can help them get good jobs, or what it can do about economic growth, pursuing modern social policies, tackling climate change, fighting cross-border terrorism, or pursuing a knowledge-based society. These are the issues that matter to ordinary people, including people from Britain and Slovakia. So governments need to focus on them. The voice of any member state that addresses these concerns will be heard with interest and attention in Brussels. Slovakia has a respected voice that comes with its own particular experience. I think it can make its voice heard on these issues, and in doing so it can influence the policies that emerge.

TSS: The UK has been urging more effective international action on climate change. For example, it established high emission reduction targets at home and was the first country to create a Climate Change Bill. Is there a wide public awareness of the climate change problem in the UK? What are the challenges that countries like Slovakia face?

MR: Climate is one of the issues that has really gripped the imagination of the British public. So much so that some of our politicians have had difficulty keeping up with public opinion. The British government is now rolling out some pretty radical policies, including plenty of new legislation.

The predicted rise in global temperatures by possibly 2 percent in 2050 and 6 percent by the end of the century will bring huge challenges in terms of droughts, floods, environmental degradation, hunger and disease, any of which could cause migration and even conflict. This is not an issue that we can put off. We absolutely have to deal with it today.

That is why the British people and government support urgent efforts to reduce global carbon emissions and to increase the use of renewable energy sources. British diplomacy is actively engaged abroad in persuading other governments to back this movement. We have to persuade our businesses, motorists and households to reduce their energy consumption, but also to look at ways of shifting away from coal, oil and gas towards renewable energy sources. We’re having some difficult debates about all this.

This is another example of where countries like Slovakia can point the way to achieving global change. There are companies here using geothermal energy, of which you have lots in Slovakia. Those companies are discovering that, even as they shift to carbon-neutral sources of energy, they can still be competitive globally. At the same time, Slovakia has been rebuilding its capacity for safe nuclear power. I think this is exactly the right thing to do. We are doing the same in Britain. We’re also looking at expanding our wind farms. We can all see that even though these steps are expensive, it will cost us even more if we delay.

TSS: The UK has one of the most productive scientific and research communities in the world. The UK government has substantially increased public funding for research and development over the past decade, aiming to raise the level of investment from 1.9 percent to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2014. Slovakia still greatly lags behind in investment into science and research, with the most frequent argument being a lack of funds. What are Slovakia’s options?

MR: The UK Government has a deliberate policy of increasing investment in science and research. That’s because we turn to scientists to help us tackle certain key challenges: the sustainable use of natural resources, poverty reduction and eradicating infectious diseases. Yet scientists operate in an international environment, and tend to seek out the best local environment in which they can excel. Likewise, businesses aim to extract value wherever the most innovative research is taking place. So scientific research and development can help make countries an attractive place to invest. We see that Britain’s future prosperity depends on our success within a highly competitive knowledge-based environment.

Slovakia still has a way to go to achieve funding at the levels you mention on a sustainable basis. EU structural and cohesion funds will help in the short and medium term. Slovakia has particular strengths, for example in medical research and mathematics; the Slovak Academy of Science (SAV) has a number of bilateral agreements including with the UK. And our countries have about 160 ongoing collaborative projects. But there is obviously scope for more.

TSS: The United Kingdom has always been one of the most important European centres of education. What makes British universities so attractive to foreign students?

MR: We in Britain pride ourselves on having three of the world’s top 10 universities. The other day I went to the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, just outside Cambridge, which was the UK end of the global Human Genome Project. The Institute’s work in mapping the human genetic code is a vital part of efforts to improve the life choices and expectations of us all. And it’s just one of those huge collaborative research projects that UK universities and institutions are pursuing. We have invested heavily and generously in the research capacity of our universities. This has helped make them competitive and encouraged scientists from all over the world, including from Slovakia, to come and work in Britain. Our universities also attract a large number of foreign students, including from Slovakia. I get real joy out of meeting the many Slovak students who have spent time at a British university. It is not cheap, but the experience is valuable to them and they come home with good skills and good contacts as well as a good degree.

TSS: Your embassy administers the Chevening Programme, which is offered in 150 countries. How successful is it in Slovakia?

MR: We have historically devoted funds through our Chevening scholarship scheme to attract brilliant overseas students to come to the UK for study. Here in Slovakia the scheme has run for over 15 years and we have already had some 50 scholars. The scheme is now shifting towards Chevening fellowships for shorter term stays at British universities. In my last country of service, Turkey, we were pleased to find that one of our Chevening scholars was appointed, several years later, to the position of Governor of the Central Bank. Now that was a real success. We always hope that the scholar maintains a lifelong attachment both to the university where he or she studied as well as to Britain.

TSS: Slovak universities have been trying to open up to the world. What is the way to go for these universities?

MR: Universities have to be competitive in the marketplace of students and professors. When a British student is looking to study abroad, he or she will obviously look at America, mostly because of the language. They will also look at universities closer to home like those in Germany, Italy and France. They will look at universities in Slovakia and elsewhere in the region, but they will only seriously consider universities that really compete.

A lack of English-language teaching might have put off students from my country in the past. But more important now is the question of how universities market and position themselves to attract students who have such a huge choice.

Slovak universities can do it. You have some brilliant teachers and strong academic disciplines here, but the universities need consciously to work at marketing and competing in a very challenging and competitive environment. It might go against your culture or sensitivity, but competition in all areas of academic life is healthy. It’s also the way to raise standards.

TSS: Slovakia has been exploring ways to help integrate the Roma community in Slovakia. Your embassy has been interested in the problems of this community, which has been called the most deprived minority in Europe.

MR: There is a recognised need to work harder for the social inclusion of Roma communities throughout the EU. I wanted to understand more about Roma issues here in Slovakia. After all, among the many Slovaks who come to my country there are many Roma. We advertised for a “fellow” or “intern”, knowledgeable about Roma issues, to come and spend a couple of months working with us. We were delighted when a good candidate, who happened to be Roma, emerged at the end of the recruitment process. She has just finished her fellowship with us. It was useful experience on both sides, and we learned a lot about the issues that the Roma community faces in Slovakia. Those often have to do with education and access to the employment market. Change is going to take more than just money. It will require a change of culture on all sides to achieve the inclusion that we all want. As for us, we don’t want the fellowship to be a one-off.

TSS: After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Western nations faced the challenge of reshaping their understanding of the nations that lived behind it. Is there a decent understanding among the British public of the Visegrad Four region, or more specifically Slovakia, and vice versa? Stereotypes probably prevail on both sides.

MR: What is truly great about Britain is its multi-cultural diversity. A British member of the European Parliament used to tell me that in her constituency in North London more than 100 different languages were spoken. Tens of thousands of Slovaks are now working in Britain. An even larger number of Slovaks have been to Britain and have met British people.

There is a learning process going on here. We have not had decades to get to know each other. We are just starting to do that. The Slovaks in Britain are getting about and making themselves known, and I find it exciting to hear Slovak being spoken on the London tube. British people know relatively little about life in Slovakia. It is a new country for us to explore. Brits have started coming here in greater numbers, and many know about Bratislava. Fewer know about other parts of Slovakia such as the High Tatras. There are more international flights from Slovakia to Great Britain than to any other international destination. The passengers are not all Slovaks but also Brits coming to discover Slovakia and all its natural beauty.

British people like the attractions of Slovakia, such as its spas, skiing, cycling, and outdoor activities. I hope too that you can get British companies to set up businesses in Slovakia because there are favourable investment conditions here.

TSS: Queen Elizabeth II will pay her first visit to Slovakia in October. What is the importance of her visit and its implications?

MR: This will be Her Majesty’s first visit to Slovakia and it will also be the first visit by a reigning British monarch to your country. I hope the visit will show support for Slovakia as a new partner of the UK, not just bilaterally, but also in the UN, NATO and the European Union. These visits are not only about relations between governments. They’re about relations between people. The Queen has been head of state for 54 years. She has met an incredible number of leaders and people and shows a very lively interest in all of them.

TSS: Slovakia, like many other countries of the former communist bloc, continues to struggle with the corruption and cronyism that pervades all levels of public administration. What have been the UK’s best strategies for tackling corruption?

MR: We have been dealing with corruption, cronyism and transparency issues for centuries and we still have more work to do. Some of the key ingredients are a free media, which has to be fearless and rigorous in scrutinising the work of government. You also need a judiciary that has earned respect in the eyes of the public for its independence and fairness. You need a culture of openness and transparency, applying particularly to recruitment on the basis of merit, and also acknowledging the right of the public to hear not just what the politicians want people to hear.

In Britain we have a Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public and members of the media to see documents and emails that led to a particular decision being taken. It seems to be quite effective in improving transparent decision-making. Then there is also a culture of consultation: we consult concerned individuals and communities before taking decisions that may affect them. There should also be an expectation among politicians and political parties that what they do, as well as what they say, is going to be subject to rigourous scrutiny. For example, the British parliament has a committee of standards in public life that looks at the way our politicians and civil servants behave. It is pretty fearless about criticising them. Over time, you can evolve institutions that really begin to tackle these difficult issues. Slovakia has not had the time we have had, but you have at least been working on it.

TSS: The concept of corporate social responsibility is not yet widely known and understood among Slovak firms and businesses, though it has become part of the company’s life in many world companies. How could even smaller companies in Slovakia become more socially responsible?

MR: Business is essential for development. But for development to be sustainable, human and labour rights as well as the environment must be respected, while corruption must be stamped out. By working in partnership with business, especially with exemplary firms, the British government has been able to demonstrate leadership in the field of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

We use our relationship to promote policies that help the local business environment, that encourage effective regulation and root out corruption. The obvious point is that this actually helps businesses: they perform better, and their staff perform better. Sometimes, staff themselves decide what CSR projects they want to promote. This gives them pride in the organisation they work for. Everyone wins from that.

General facts

Political system: Constitutional monarchy


Total area:242,500 square kilometres

Population:60.4 million

The United Kingdom consists of England, Wales, Scotland (which together make up Great Britain) and Northern Ireland.

Source: EU website:

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